Homestays win hearts, minds from many a distant place

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kathy Shorr
Globe Correspondent / August 1, 2004

Ellen and Tom Simmonds have been staying with families around the world for much of the last 15 years as well as hosting foreign travelers in their Rye, N.H., home.

"When we went to Japan, people would hug each other, and our Japanese host, Agie, said to me, 'Agie, no hug,' " Ellen Simmonds recalls. "He was a big Japanese man, tall and muscular. I said, 'Fine, OK.' When we left, he came to me and said, 'Agie will hug.' That's what happens."

Such human connection is at the heart of many homestay programs, which provide an excellent way for single travelers, and others, to surround themselves with friendly, local people. The programs can be a loose network like Servas, where travelers are handed a list of hosts in various countries and make their own arrangements for a visit, or something more structured, like Friendship Force International, which arranges homestays for small groups, complete with group leader and organized activities.

Though such programs may differ in style, what most share is the idea of overcoming cultural stereotypes and building goodwill through person-to-person contact.

"It's friendship, the fellowship, the warmth," says Kate Soukonnikov, a Servas traveler who, with her husband, Boris, frequently hosts others in her Newton home. "Servas does build peace one friendship at a time."

As an example, she talks about having "a chip on my shoulder about Germans," as the Jewish daughter of a Holocaust survivor. "My husband would say you can't do that." Then they hosted a German actor and his wife who were traveling on their honeymoon, a "tall blond Aryan," as she puts it.

"They were very intelligent, both wonderful people," she recalls. "I talked about my background. He was in the kitchen doorway, chatting. His father was a German soldier, he said. The war had changed him forever; it was a nightmare for him. This German actor was a childhood survivor in his own way. And our eyes met across the kitchen. All that pain, all that horror of the war. Except for Servas this would never have happened.

"Not that it's always deep and meaningful," she says. A connection can be as simple as the one Boris Soukonnikov, who grew up in Ukraine, experienced with his host family in Japan. "They said, 'Do you know, Japan has a very popular folk song.' They found their song sheets, a Japanese translation of a Russian folk song, with music, and we sang it together. I said, 'I came from America to Japan to sing Russian folk songs.' "

That was his first stay with a family after years of traveling on his own. Now he's hooked.

"For me, it's much better than any other kind of trip," Soukonnikov says. "It helped to see life from inside. You see real life, not from a tourist's point of view."

That's a typical response; once people try a homestay, they often come back for more. Still, it's an idea that doesn't immediately appeal to many American travelers.

"A common reaction is, 'I don't think I want to go stay with someone. What if you don't like them?' " says Harriet Kuhr, director of program services for Friendship Force. "We have this idea the way to have a good vacation is to have total autonomy and be free. But it turns out the way may be to put yourself into somebody's hands who knows the place, to be able to give yourself up to the experience."

Through Friendship Force, Ellen Simmonds has stayed with a Protestant family in Northern Ireland; with a black family in a village outside Cape Town, where she and a few fellow travelers were the only white people; and with a family in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose members survived years of bombings by sleeping in their bathroom. She and her husband have hosted travelers from Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Germany, and England, and have guests arriving soon from Costa Rica.

"My husband says the best time you spend is the time your feet are under the dining room table. This is where you talk about things," she says.

Sometimes, hosts and guests speak English, but not always.

"It didn't make the exchange bad," Simmonds says of the latter. "We didn't have long philosophical conversations, but between sign language and dictionaries, you get one word and get the gist of what they're trying to tell you."

That idea of exchange is central. People may be attracted by the low price (homestays are generally cheaper than a hotel). Most fees cover organizing costs, and little or nothing goes to host families. Says Simmonds, "Those who come because it's cheap, if that's why they do it, they've got the wrong idea."

Servas administrator Jon Moseley agrees: "The ones who did it to save money are the ones disappointed most."

Fiora Houghteling of Newton has been a Servas traveler and host for more than 20 years, and interviews potential travelers during the application process.

"It gives me a chance to find out whether they're going to be good travelers and thoughtful," she says. "The person may not understand about other countries, and we can tell them what's difficult for hosts. We're out there traveling to learn, not to brag about our country, to be ugly Americans."

For Houghteling, being a good guest often means helping with the most basic household tasks. She and her late husband once stayed with a couple in Dorset, England.

"We slept on a mattress on the floor of their study," she recalls. "I helped get their kids off to school, then I did the dishes, then we went off sightseeing. Jim read to the children after dinner."

"Many young people come from moderately affluent families," she says. "They haven't had a broad kind of experience. Some would never have been in a place where there's a limit on the hot water you can have. That's the kind of thing we need to think about as Americans going abroad."

Simmonds agrees that openness to a different style or level of comfort is one of the keys to enjoying a homestay. "Some are wealthy, some are not, some are professionals, some are not. A good homestay has nothing to do with that, but with your philosophy. You can see some people cringing at the thought. If they don't have someone turning the bed down and putting a chocolate mint on the pillow, or mind sharing a bathroom with someone else . . . you'd never want those people to go."

Not having a private bath does seem to be a stopping point for many Americans. "It's strange what people are nervous about," says Phyllis Watt Ingersoll of Cambridge, a longtime participant with the Experiment in International Living, which arranges homestays in 24 countries. "People want their own bathrooms, which I find really dumb, compared to making friendships and getting to know a family and seeing how things work in another culture, seeing their view of your culture. There's so much to learn that you don't get when you're just walking down the street. I think that's even more true today, when you have McDonalds everywhere, and streets are less different from each other than they used to be."

"I've seen lots of different kinds of bathrooms in my life," Ingersoll says with a laugh. In fact, she has been in bathrooms in houses around the world. Now 73, she had her first foreign homestay in 1933 at the age of 6 months, in Germany. Her father, Donald Watt, created the Experiment in International Living, credited by many as being the first formal foreign homestay program.

In 1933 Hitler had just come to power. "My dad thought young people getting to know each other could make a little improvement in the world situation," Ingersoll says.

The previous summer he had taken a group of American students to Switzerland, where they stayed in a camp along with French and German students. "But with three different languages, my father felt it wasn't successful in getting kids to know one another. The German leader said, 'Come to my town next summer. We'll put them in different homes so they won't be able to talk to each other in English.' So that's where the first Experiment got started, as a reaction to something that wasn't successful."

The war put an end to the program for many years, but as a young teenager, Ingersoll resumed her exchanges. As for herself these days, she says , "Hosting people is definitely a way of life."

She has plenty of advice for being either a good guest or host: "Talking about customs in an open and uncritical way, an interested way. You generally stay off politics and religion for the first week. Those tend to be more complicated and can lead to misunderstandings if you're not understanding each other well."

Ingersoll says it's also helpful to clarify what may seem like very obvious or simple things: what time breakfast is, for example. But most of all, "A good sense of humor is very important. A typical story, I think it was in France, one of the families came and said the American boy is stealing. Everyone was horrified. It turned out he would go to the refrigerator at night and have a little snack in the middle of the night. He was used to doing that at home. It was interpreted as a horrible event. Something like that can easily blow up into a disaster, or you can just have a good laugh about it."

Houghteling says she's happy for her homestay experiences, even if they are onetime events.

"I almost always feel within an hour that we have been friends always," she says. "I'll probably never see most people again. I lead a busy life. Lots of people come to stay. I probably won't even remember their names. But it makes me feel I'm related to everybody in the world."

Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer in Wellfleet.

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